For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter. Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.
The years when Jesus lived happened to be a dark time in the history of God’s people.
Roman legions occupied Judah and Galilee. A cruel and erratic governor, Pontius Pilate, routinely violated Jewish religious sensitivities. A puppet “king,” one of the many Herods, pretended to represent the interests of his people. Taxation was through the roof – historians estimate it exceeded 40% of personal income. The wealth gap between rich and poor was so severe that thousands of peasants resorted to “brigandry,” or full-time theft, in order to put bread on the table.
How long could the nation endure such a crisis?
Most Jews, in their heart of hearts, believed three things. First, God still loved them. They were, after all, his chosen people. Second, God was going to do something about this mess. He was going to take action on their behalf. And third, that action would happen through the Messiah, the Rescuer that God had promised centuries earlier through his prophets.
That’s why it’s such a big deal when Peter declares to Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter is saying, “You’re the answer to our prayers. You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.” Perhaps the long-anticipated war of liberation is about to begin.
But just when it seems that Peter is on top of the world, everything changes:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns’” (Matthew 16:21-23).
What’s going on here?
Peter is Christ-centered. That part of his theology is spot-on. But he’s not cross-centered. When he hears Jesus say that he is heading toward extreme suffering and a gruesome death, he pulls him aside and says, “No way, Lord!”
“He took him aside” is the same expression in Greek that would be used for a rich, influential person – someone who’s “made it” – taking aside a less fortunate person and giving them a few bucks or some friendly words of advice. “Hey, lighten up a bit, you don’t need to be thinking stuff like that.” Peter will take care of Jesus.
But Jesus does not need a caregiver.
“Jesus turned and said to Peter…” At root this verb means to turn on the heel. Jesus wheels around and confronts Peter.
“Get behind me, Satan!” In other words, get back in line behind me. That’s where disciples belong, not up here in my grill telling me how to run the universe. Bible scholar Dale Bruner points out that we make mistakes not only when we pursue our worst thoughts, but when we try to impose on Jesus what we think are our very best thoughts.
Peter has already demonstrated that he knows who Jesus is. But now he is trying to make Jesus conform to his notion of what a real Messiah ought to be doing.
Jesus calls Peter Satan because he well knows (from his own experience of temptation) that the devil is the ultimate source of Peter’s muddled ideas as to what should happen next. Satan inspires us to pursue success without suffering. Maybe we can have Easter without Good Friday. Why not give our loyalty to Bible teachers who promise health-and-wealth and “the abundant life,” without the messiness of those verses where Jesus reminds us to take up our crosses every day?
Concerning the core beliefs of the Jews in Judah and Galilee, God did indeed love his people. And he did indeed take action to rescue them. But his rescue wasn’t a military invasion or political revolution. He sent a suffering Messiah who alone could deal with their greatest need. On the cross he swept away every sin and affliction that could possibly keep them from standing in the presence of God.
Non-Catholics have noted that when Jesus made Peter the Rock, he obviously didn’t make him inerrant – seeing as how his very first statement after his “ordination” needed divine correction.
Bruner daringly suggests that St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome needs a new engraving. Jesus’ words, “You are the Rock” are plainly visible. Perhaps Jesus’ other words to Peter should be there, too: “You are Satan.”
That’s true of every Christian disciple, after all. One minute we can score a “100” on a Christological pop quiz. Then a minute later we wonder why God allows us to go through pain and heartache. Isn’t it Jesus’ job to make us happy?
Actually, it’s Jesus’ job to help us become just like him.
Being Christ-centered is wonderful.
But being Christ-centered and cross-centered is what it means to be faithful.